Suburban gangs

August 09, 2005

MONTGOMERY COUNTY police were quick to identify the stabbings of six high school students late last week as gang-related. Which gang, investigators wouldn't say. But they didn't need to -- MS-13, a Latino gang originating in El Salvador, is well known to law enforcement in Maryland's Washington suburbs. Prince George's County prosecutors relied on a gang expert this year to win murder convictions against members of Mara Salvatrucha, the gang's formal name. The neighboring counties have been working to counter gang recruitment efforts, but the stabbings reinforce the need to provide Latino youths with alternatives to enlisting in this selective and dangerous club.

MS-13, which came to prominence on the streets of Los Angeles, can be found in communities across the country. Its members can be as young as middle-schoolers and as old as 30. They form cliques, but share the same initiation rites, colors, tattoos, sign language and punishment routines. Gang rapes, beatings, cuttings and "skip parties" -- to lure kids out of school -- are among their routines.

The increasing number of Latino immigrants in Montgomery and Prince George's counties has brought the gang problem into sharper focus. But youth gangs are not solely a Latino problem. MS-13 may have generated the most publicity with several high-profile murders in northern Virginia that brought federal prosecutors into the fight. But, as Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey has noted, gang violence cuts across race and culture in Prince George's, and the type of crime varies by group.

A joint county task force estimated about 50 gangs in Prince George's and 20 to 25 in Montgomery. It issued recommendations last fall that correctly addressed the problem in terms of prevention and law enforcement. A new community center planned for the predominantly Hispanic Langley Park area is one tangible outcome of that work. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has put dollars into two new day laborer centers and views school-based health clinics as another way to reach kids. But the County Council, regrettably, cut by half his funding for a gang unit in the Police Department.

The level of gang-related violence in Prince George's and Montgomery counties hasn't reached the epidemic proportions of the murderous drug organizations in Baltimore. That means both counties have a chance to stem a corresponding surge of violence among gangs by reinforcing their investment in programs for at-risk youths, increasing the number of fluent Spanish speakers and minority police officers on their forces and involving community groups in the effort.

State and federal agencies should join their efforts. This shouldn't be viewed solely as a local problem, because as gang criminals are prosecuted and convicted, they will be heading for Maryland jails and prisons, and possibly recruiting members there.

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